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Wounded New Orleans finds a savior in Midwestern church

c. 2008 Religion News Service TIPP CITY, Ohio _ It is not that Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church sits in the middle of a Midwestern cornfield that makes it notable. Nor even that its pastor preaches in jeans and sandals to a working-class congregation sipping coffee in shorts and T-shirts. More to the point: Of the […]

c. 2008 Religion News Service

TIPP CITY, Ohio _ It is not that Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church sits in the middle of a Midwestern cornfield that makes it notable. Nor even that its pastor preaches in jeans and sandals to a working-class congregation sipping coffee in shorts and T-shirts.

More to the point: Of the hundreds of American churches, ministries and local faith-based organizations that for nearly three years have poured themselves out on behalf of wounded New Orleans, few have matched the sustained commitment of this megachurch 15 miles north of Dayton.

Over 21/2 years, Ginghamsburg has sent 41 teams of volunteers to help rebuild the New Orleans area.

They are still coming. Five teams have come so far in 2008; six more are booked for later this year.

“We’ll keep coming until people tell us to stop,” said Craig Maxwell, Ginghamsburg’s director of global missions. “And we’ll keep promoting it, to make sure people know the need is still there.”

The Ohio volunteers come out of a faith community so ferociously committed to aiding the poor, whether in Dayton or Darfur, that its pastor, the Rev. Mike Slaughter, regularly admonishes his congregation, “You get no points for coming to church on Sunday.”

Instead, the life of Ginghamsburg is mission work, sending church members as far away as Thailand and Ghana “to be the hands and feet of Jesus” _ one of a store of “Slaughterisms” his congregants quote during breaks from hanging drywall in New Orleans neighborhoods.

“That’s our DNA,” Slaughter, 56, said in an interview. “You love God by serving people. The poor have a special priority with God. … If it’s not good news for the poor, it’s not the gospel.”

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Seared by images of Hurricane Katrina’s deadly fury, Ginghamsburg raised $113,000 in a single storm-relief offering. In 2006, they teamed up with what’s now called the Southeast Louisiana Disaster Recovery Center to aid people like Carol Avery of Lacombe, La.

During Katrina, five feet of hurricane storm surge swept through the first floor of her two-story home. She and her husband, Jerry, who lost his job shortly after the storm, had no flood insurance.

The couple gutted the first floor themselves. But two years later they were stalled. They lost money to a contractor, they were out of funds and Carol Avery was disappearing into a black depression.

“I’d stopped caring. I didn’t get out of bed for a month,” she said.

But three weeks ago, the house was nearly finished. Teams had raised new walls and laid new floors, rewired the first floor, installed a donated air conditioning and heating system, and rebuilt a bathroom.

“Before, it was like every door was shut,” Carol Avery said. “But when they showed up, it was like a door opened, and then another, and then _ I woke up. Like, I was alive again.”

Upstairs in Avery’s house, Ginghamsburg member Rick Baker, a 47-year-old Motorola technical support worker on his fourth trip to the New Orleans area, installed new electrical boxes. His partner, 18-year-old Rob Pratt, skipped his high-school graduation to make his first trip.

“This gets me fired up,” Baker said. “We’ve got to do this. This is our back yard, it’s not across the world.”

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Like other volunteers, Ginghamsburg workers often talk of being shaken by the scope of the disaster and the depth of need even now. They are exhilarated by the rush of instant gratitude from people they help.

“People at work think we’re nuts,” said Gale Pence, 57, who works for a building supplier in Dayton. “Let’s see, you’re taking a week’s vacation, paying money to sleep on an air mattress and working for free?

“And we say, `Yep.”’

About 4,400 attend services at Ginghamsburg each week, though the number of actual enrolled members _ people who completed a three-month orientation class and promised to tithe 10 percent of their income _ is closer to 1,200.

When new members are introduced, they are expected to announce their choice of mission work. They are imbued with another Slaughterism: They are not “volunteers,” but “servants.”

The difference, congregants say, is that “volunteers” serve at a time and place of their own choosing; “servants” obey the call of a master.

“We don’t volunteer as a matter of convenience,” said parishioner Bruce Heft, a school bus driver who will make three trips to New Orleans this year. “We serve.”

The church has so systematized its mission offerings that each year it publishes a glossy catalog of 11 distant mission opportunities: Chicago, New York City, New Orleans, Jamaica, Haiti and elsewhere. Volunteers merely pick a trip and pay a fee ($275 for six days in New Orleans; $2,999 for 11 days in Thailand), meet a trip leader, get oriented, and go.

Slaughter came to Ginghamsburg 29 years ago at age 27, inheriting a sleepy crossroads church that he jokes grew from 90 to 60 during his first year. Yet Slaughter had ideas and energy and jolted the tiny church. “He’s not a nurturer; he’s a gooser,” said Dena Helsinger, a registered nurse on a recent New Orleans trip.

Today, the church runs on a $6 million annual budget and employs about 120 full- and part-time staff. It holds five weekend services that feature lavish multimedia technology and upbeat Christian music.

Inside the church, the mood is joyful; dress is casual. Congregants arrive in shorts, grab a free pastry or cup of coffee, chat with friends and wander into an hourlong service. There is no cross inside the multi-purpose sanctuary nor soaring above the angular, red-brick building.

Congregants sing, worship and listen to Slaughter’s message in chairs that will be stowed away so the building can be put to another use later in the week.

Not surprisingly, Ginghamsburg’s culture reflects Slaughter’s iconoclastic vision of a community of faith.

“I believe Jesus is absolute truth, but I don’t believe Christianity is absolute truth,” Slaughter said. “I believe Christianity as a religion has become something significantly different than what Jesus was about.”

Although Ginghamsburg’s culture emphasizes Scripture and each believer’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ, it is firmly embedded in the liberal evangelical tradition that dedicates itself to social justice rather than battling over hot-button cultural issues.

Yet Slaughter says it is pro-life in the broadest sense, throwing itself at the service of the poor and dispossessed.

Since 2005, Ginghamsburg has raised $3 million to aid the victims of the genocide in Darfur, raising more money each year than the year before.

It started four years ago when Slaughter admonished his congregation with typical bluntness that “Christmas is not your birthday. Stop acting like it.” He asked them to halve their holiday spending and give an equal amount to the poor in Darfur. His flock responded.

Which illustrates another much-repeated Slaughterism: “Live simply so that others may simply live.”

(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)

KRE/PH END NOLAN1,200 words, with optional trim to 950

Photos of Slaughter and work teams from Ginghamsburg are available via https://religionnews.com.